by Stuart Sherman
We've seen much of this before: a monarch in ancient Britain angrily repudiates a daughter he's adored; a villain lures a newly married man into the murderous conviction that his wife has been unfaithful; a young woman disguises herself as a boy for purposes of self-protection; a husband receives false word of his beloved's death (we know, as those on stage do not, that she is merely drugged, not dead). Approaching the end of his career, Shakespeare produced in Cymbeline something like a self-anthology.
And, being Shakespeare, imbued it with new alchemy: a re-reckoning of the recipe, a re-proportioning of the ingredients. Cymbeline, the king for whom this late play is named, remains peripheral to the action rather than (as in King Lear ) central; Posthumus, the husband whose transition from love to rage might be expected to drive the plot, leaves the stage for long stretches rather than (as in Othello ) holding it hypnotically from his first speech to his last.
The effect of these redistributions is to draw our attention away from the men and to fix it on the woman they put in peril. Denounced by father and husband, Imogen is a woman emphatically alone, making her way through a world dominated by volatile and dangerous men. Pursued by first a deft conniver and then a murderous rapist, Imogen confronts, again and again, that terrifying turn of mind whereby a man's ardor may quickly shift to enmity. "What makes your admiration?" she asks Iachimo, her would-be seducer, who, upon seeing her for the first time, stares awestruck at her beauty. She means merely, "What is it that amazes you?" But in fact his admiration plays out as action, not reaction. It will soon make bad things happen: curdled into malice, it will bring her near to ruin. The cumulative effect of masculine attention amounts to something like annihilation. "I am nothing," Imogen declares, exhausted by admirations that so often end up in assault.
"Nothing," said King Lear to Cordelia, when that word was her only answer, "will come of nothing." For Shakespeare, Lear's proposition is always false. "Nothing" invariably comes to something, even if only in the substance and the solace of the language with which his characters voice their responses to the void. Imogen's near-annihilation, her drug-feigned death, prompts from her mourners some of the gentlest, most hypnotic lines that Shakespeare ever wrote.
Fear no more the heat o' the' sun,
Nor the furious winter's rages,
Thou thy worldly task has done,
Home art gone and ta'en thy wages.
Golden lads and girls all must,
As chimney-sweepers, come to dust.
In Elizabethan London, poor children ("lads and girls") were sometimes employed as chimney-sweepers because they had bodies small enough to fit, and of course "coming to dust" was for them all in a day's work; the lines' great power lies in the modulation from the mundane to the mortal—from the dust in the chimney to the dust of death. But chimney-sweepers (as Marjorie Garber points out in her great book Shakespeare After All ) was also a colloquialism for dandelions (whose blooms resemble brooms), and when dandelions turn from spring gold to summer dust, that dust is fertile; they are sprouting the seeds of next spring's crop. The elegy, which seems on its surface to pronounce a universal doom, hints quietly at continuities—even at resurrections.
As does much else in Cymbeline. In no play since his early Comedy of Errors does Shakespeare arrange for so many characters deemed dead to return alive. The final scene abounds with resurrections and recognitions, for which, at play's end, the king speaks thanks:
Laud we the gods,
And let our crooked smokes climb to their nostrils
From our blest altars.
James Joyce loved these lines; he made them the lynchpin of Ulysses, where, at the book's exact midpoint, he quotes them while smoke from twin chimneys curls and combines in the air over Dublin, foreshadowing the human fusions that may or may not take place at day's and novel's end. What Joyce savored most, perhaps, was that word crooked: it tracks the wayward ways his characters move through the city, unconsciously en route to their convergence later on.
Shakespeare favors crooked too: the tangled paths by which his characters come to re-discover each other and themselves; the insistent sense that human imperfection (our crooked smokes), though it may strive toward heaven, is the stuff of life in the world as it is of plays on the stage. Cymbeline deals proudly in its crooked alchemies; it displays them as a badge of truth—or, in the play's own phrase, "a mark of wonder."
The wondering compasses ourselves as well as the characters. "What makes your admiration?," Shakespeare tacitly asks us, having striven triumphantly for decades to evoke and secure it at every turn. Our amazement has been his lifelong stock in trade; he hopes, like his heroine, that we will use it well.